Starting a Brand New Law Firm After 18 Years of Practice: A Step-by-Step Walkthrough from Successful Launch to Expansion, Hiring Virtual Contract Lawyers, and Empathetic Pricing

May 5th, 2017

I’m really excited to share this episode with you because there is so much that can be taken away from it. It’s an interview with Maria Aguila, who is an immigration and family law attorney out of Jacksonville, Florida, one of our providers. One of the common challenges that a lot of our attorneys that we work with have is, when we’re doing lead generation for them, we’re bringing them all kinds of new clients, is this is all new business and they have to find a way to serve this higher volume of clients that they’ve been used to serving.

Right off the bat, one of the things we talk about with Maria is the ways in which she’s brought on contract lawyers to work with her in a supportive role. We’ve had other attorneys that have hired contract lawyers to handle entire cases, where they do a fee split. There are some things that they’ve done to make that work. Maria actually hires contract lawyers to assist her with drafting and performing some of the legal work that she does. Again, it’s in more of a supportive role and she talks about how that’s different and how she bills for that, and really breaks that down. Attorneys that may be feeling the pressure of handling … Having too much business, or getting to the brink point where they maybe can’t handle it all themselves, this is a real nuts and bolts way of unpacking of how you can start to bring on or think about bringing on, contract lawyers to support you.

She also breaks down the different types of unbundled options that she offers, how she explains it to her clients, for both immigration and family law, and does a comparison to both. I think the options she offers really have a common thread of empathy. Everything that she does … She tries to put herself in the shoes of her clients, and figure out ways in which she can work around their needs and given where they’re at financially, and a number of stresses they have on their hands. She’s having a lot of success, even just six months out from relaunching her practice, even though she’s got a lot of experience. Brings a lot of that 18 years of law practice experience that she’s had to this new launch of her practice. There’s just so much to take away as a result. Let’s just get right into it, this interview with Maria Aguila, one of our provider attorneys out of Jacksonville, Florida.

Below is the transcription of this episode from our Unbundled Attorney Mastermind Podcast. You can listen to the entire episode by clicking here.

Dave Aarons: Hey, Maria, welcome to the show!

Maria Aguila: Hi, thanks for having me.

Dave Aarons: This is going to be a lot of fun. I’m really glad we’re getting the chance to catch up. It’s been a fun six months so far, and really looking forward to unpacking how it’s all gone. I appreciate you taking the time to share the story.

Maria Aguila: Sure. I’d be more than happy to share my experiences, how it’s been building my business.

Dave Aarons: Absolutely. Maria,  I understand you were just getting things going in your new practice when we first … Maybe you could just share the Genesis story of your practice, where you serve, and the focus areas of law, as well.

Maria Aguila: Right. I was working for the state of Florida, I was working before I opened my practice. Before that, I had my practice before, before I went … I have a long history, I’ve been an attorney for 18 years so I was in a private law firm, I worked at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, I’ve worked for the state of Florida. I opened my own practice, and then went back to the government and now back to my practice. This is where I’d like to stay for now. I practice immigration law, family law, and international adoptions. Here and there, I do some landlord, tenant cases because I have experience in landlord, tenant, and fair housing when I was a Jacksonville Area Legal Aid attorney. I have training in that, as well.Since I started, I reopened my practice, I think it was

Since I started, I reopened my practice, I think it was at the end of October, early November, I got a phone call from Graham. You get a lot of marketing calls when you open your own law firm. This one really piqued my interest, because it was a different type of lead generation service and I really liked the different podcasts that I had heard about, or that Graham pointed me towards. I listened to those and I thought, “My gosh, this could be it.” I had been debating in my mind, how am I going to structure this? I had experience from the first go-round with my practice, and when I first had my practice, all I would do was exclusively immigration law. This time around, I had expanded it to family law and international adoptions, doing more of those and hoping to develop that area.

I thought I wanted to take a different approach to marketing and to getting needs out there and never really used the service before, never really advertised heavily. Since I started, it fell in my lap and I just signed up. I said, “Why not? I’ll give it a try. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” It worked, and then some. The first two weeks signed up I think, around 60, 70% first go-round on the first few … The leads I got in that first month, I would say even the first two weeks. In fact, the numbers might be higher than that. It might be 80 or 90. As it continued to grow, it was during the holidays. I opened at an odd time where a lot of people are busy during the holidays and in the fall. Come January, things really started to pick up even more. I was finding myself needing to sign a lease at an office location. I was using a co-work space and already was looking at space for lease.

I ended up adding two contract attorneys, one for immigration, one for family law. One was in Seattle, actually, Washington, and she ended up doing such a great job for me, she got hired by some big law firm doing immigration law. I ended up with the contract attorney I have, she’s out in Colorado and used to practice in the northeast Florida area. She helps me meet my deadlines and draft my family law petitions so we don’t get too behind, and make sure the clients are happy and get the stuff filed in court in a timely manner. I have my part-time assistant here on Tuesday, Thursdays. Right now, he’s a contractor and he has about nine years of immigration law experience and working a lot with refugees and doing naturalization and becoming a US citizen is what that means. He’s been fantastic, he’s here today because it’s Thursday. He was getting a lot more work done for me while I’m on the phone talking to clients and arranging meetings, getting stuff done for the clients while he does a lot of the drafting and the organizing and cover letters and those kinds of things.

Dave Aarons: Cool. There’s a lot of things we can unpack there. Maybe you can walk us through a little bit. For those that don’t know what a co-working space is, what that looked like. I think it’s also commonly referred to as a virtual office. Maybe you can share how you’re using that space, and then what made you make that transition, obviously, you get to a certain amount of volume, you have a need to have a full-time office. Briefly, share what that looked like.

Maria Aguila:  Sure. there’s a  lot of spaces it in Jacksonville, Florida, it’s just starting to really offer co-working space, essentially a virtual office is what that is. If you do a lot, you may work out at your home. A lot of people may start out that way. What’s great about a virtual office, or co-work space, is that whenever you need it to meet with clients and you have a place where you can receive your mail, it has a professional appearance of an office space. You meet them in a nice conference room.

My building here had a really nice kitchen lobby area. They had a receptionist welcome you. They sign in with an iPad. It’s very, super modern, super sleek. It’s a brand new, renovated building. When they come in, they’re very impressed, and you have a nice meeting space for them. When our meeting was over and they were paying me, I’m able to go right in my laptop in co-work space and do a communal shared space that has the wifi and connection, and you can just get into your work right then and there. My phone goes everywhere with me, so my office line is mobile. It’s a mobile office.

That worked out for a while, at least a month or so, and then I started, a few months … I signed up the end of November, early December, and then signed a lease in March. In a couple months, I realized I was using so much conference sharing space and I was here all the time, that I really just needed to lease space. I morphed in a few months from being a co-work, virtual office, to traditional lease tenants. My package here is great because they offer free internet and a lot of great amenities. I have six hours of conference room space when I do need it. They can meet in my office or we can meet in the nice conference room. Sometimes, you have a lot of people in, let’s say, a conference, a meeting with a client has three family members because it’s an immigration case, let’s say. They’re all here. I try to cram them all in my office, so I like to use the conference room space for that. It’s impressive to the client, too.

Dave Aarons: What I’d really like to do, Maria, or at least what’s coming to mind is this has really been a launch of a new practice. I know you mentioned that you’ve been in practice before in the past. You really just got the doors opened up here at the end of October, beginning of November. That’s right when we started working together. There’s a certain phase of growth that has to happen where you’ve eventually had to bring on contract lawyers and get a new space. This is a common challenge for a lot of solo practitioners, certainly, a lot of attorney’s that work with us, when day one or for the first week or two, they’re all of a sudden starting to get an influx of new clients that they didn’t have before. They have to make this adaptation or grow this annotation growth process, to make sure they can meet the new demand of all the leads.

What I’d love to do is just unpack those phases. The first week, the first month, first couple months, what the initial challenges you were having? Obviously, you had much more clients coming in. You were like, “Okay.” You were doing maybe all of it yourself for a little while, but then you started realizing you’re getting overburdened. Can you just walk us through that and unpack that process, maybe from the first couple weeks to the next couple months, and how you had to adapt and then we can maybe even get into some of the specifics on how you hired those lawyers, how you sourced them, whether they were friends and so forth, from there.

Maria Aguila: Right. When I opened my practice, I started out working at a house. I was using Google Voice, so all the phone calls go through to my cell phone, my iPhone. I was working at a house [inaudible 00:11:53] client phone call, I started out with just putting my name, my website was put up. I went ahead and start putting myself out on Alvo, which is just a free lawyer listing website. Some business was trickling in. Some of my clients from before found out I had reopened and called me immediately. Within a few days, I had my clients coming back to me. It was interesting, like, “Were you waiting for me this whole time?” They’re like, “Well, yeah. We didn’t want anyone else. “I was like, “Well, that’s interesting. You could apply for your citizenship back then.”

It was fun because I had taken care of a lot of clients for a while. I started out that way, and then … When Graham called me and I started getting a lot of phone calls and working those leads, calling them back, getting their information, setting up the meetings. I found myself not only handling all those calls, meeting with them, and then doing the actual work itself. I was up late at night opening files, and I started to learn about all the automated options out there that weren’t available, I think, years ago. If it was available, I wasn’t aware of them.

For instance, I use My Case and Clio is another similar software, case management software. I started using Law Pay almost immediately, which has been amazing, because clients on payment plans are paying through my website, through the Law Pay link. That’s been really great because it automatically takes care of payments for me, especially those on payment plans. I started going into from virtual office to co-work space, handling all those calls, working late at night, automating everything, it realized me, even with that, I still needed the help.

I had a friend who ended up needing work. She has children and was looking for some work out of the house kind of thing. We’re friends, and I knew she had some immigration law experience and was really interested in it. I brought her on as a contract attorney, almost … After November, maybe I brought her in December? End of November? She started drafting stuff because I needed someone to start drafting and working on cases, while I was busy dealing with the leads and meeting with clients, signing up the new client. She was working on those cases, and then what’s great is in my case, I gave them access, the file is digital. Anywhere you go, and from any internet access, they can have access to the digital file.

The other contract attorney I brought on fell in my lap through a mutual friend and she was practicing family law for a long time here. I knew her already, and she had me do her husband’s job to Colorado, but she didn’t want to get licensed in that state bar, because she was already Florida bar licensed, didn’t want to have to go through all those hoops. She wanted to, then, start doing contract work for other lawyers. I brought her on and what’s great is she can get that work done while I’m busy in court or in meetings or so on, and then I get to review everything, tweak it for the client if need be, or she does it for me.

On top of that, before I had my assistant, working with me Tuesday, Thursdays … She’s related to me, to some extent, by marriage. She had worked with law firms. She’s in Singapore, so when I’m asleep, she’s working. When I get up in the morning, the forms are done. It’s interesting, none of the people so far except for my assistant has physically been in my office, but they do the same exact kind of work.

Dave Aarons:  I want to press pause here for just a second. First, it sounds like what you were hiring the contract lawyers for was for the legal work; the drafting and assisting with the preparation. Was this for immigration or family law or both, or were you really hiring these contract lawyers just for immigration side?

Maria Aguila: They’re for both. In fact, one contract attorney was for immigration, to help me draft the actual forms and complete the form. The other contract attorney is for family law, and she drafts all of my different family law documents. They’re either paid by document or by the hour. What’s great is it’s only on an as-needed basis. I just tell them the project, they get it done and then they invoice me the 15th and the 30th of the month, or they invoice me once a month, however, they want to invoice.

Dave Aarons: Can you share roughly what you might charge, or give some examples of what they may charge you to draft up documents if it’s by the document, or what they may be billing by the hour just so attorneys get some idea of how they might be able to structure this type of relationship?

Maria Aguila: Sure. My contract attorney who was doing the immigration work, and this was before she got hired at the law firm, and she got a great job. She got the immigration experience. She was being paid about $35 a document. She was brand new to it. I was training her on that. She would be paid hourly, about $10 an hour. The other contract attorney, she gets paid about $45 per document. Let’s say I made a petition for a dissolution of marriage and the affidavits that go with it, and so on. She would just charge per document and just invoice that. Of course, there’s different … For her, she’s more experienced. If I paid her hourly, it can be anywhere from depending on the complexity, 15 an hour sometimes, some contract attorneys as high as 25 or 35. I haven’t been paying that. I’ve been paying, a lot of times, per document.

Dave Aarons: How do you interface … You mentioned that none of these attorneys are working within your office with the exception of the assistant that you’ve now brought on board, that comes in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe I got that wrong. The majority, they’re not coming in the office. Can you talk about how you interface, whether it be digitally or if you’re using a software that they can get access to? How do they know which cases to work on and deliver that, and so forth?

Maria Aguila: Right. It starts with an email or a phone call from me, and I’ll tell them the project and I’ll tell them the deadline and ask them, “Are you able to handle this?”  What happens is, I then either send certain documents or typically they have access to My Case, which is the digital file. The clients know that there are contract attorneys or staff that have access to their file that may help draft the document. They go into My Case. Everything’s there in my notes. If they have questions, we either handle it by email, text, or phone call. It’s been pretty easy. The family law contract attorney is very experienced. If I tell her the situation, she works on a case, she can draft it and then if she has any issues or questions, she sends the document to me with comments or we talk about it, or she emails me, “Here are the questions.” It’s done. It’s pretty easy, with all the technology out there, it’s very easy to communicate with them.

Dave Aarons:  Right. You hired the contract lawyer to handle the cases. Up until now, we’ve had other attorneys that have hired contract lawyers and then done a handoff of an entire case, where they actually become the attorney of record. For you, it’s been more of a … They’ve been working on as an assistant role, as opposed to a lawyer that’s handling it start to finish and then you just have a split of the fees.

Maria Aguila: Right, correct, exactly. It’s different, where I don’t have these contract attorneys taking over the case entirely. They’re on my cases. I’m handling them and I’ll go to court, but they’re really more helping me with the drafting and getting that done, so we can file and get the case progressing.

Dave Aarons: I’m just curious to hear your own perspective on it. Is there a reason why you’ve gone more of the type of assistant role, where you’re having specific tasks done, but you’re keeping the responsibility and staying, is the attorney of record contact for each client, as opposed to referring out? It makes sense to me, but I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that.

Maria Aguila: Sure. I’ve always wanted to just do my own thing. I never want to really take on a lot of employees or anything. Not many, if anything, I’ll just hire one and that would be down the road, really a full-time paralegal/legal assistant. I really just want to run my own show and be the attorney, and take the cases I’m able to handle and get the help that I need, and have it run very efficiently. That’s just me, and I’m a control freak. I like to handle the cases on my own and deal with it. I guess down the road if it really does expand to the point where I may want to consider hiring attorneys, and I’ve played around with the idea of expanding the family law, because I service other rural counties around here, and I’m finding myself going to different counties. That might start being a challenge when I may have hearings scheduled, and they’re in three different courthouses in one week. How to handle that?

Down the road, and I’ve only just reopened in November so it has only been about six months, that is something I have. I’ve asked around to people that I know that I would trust to be able to handle it, what they thought of this. Would you handle cases down in these counties if I needed that and I … You’d be the attorney of record, but it would be a case generated from my office? They said, “Well, maybe.” A lot of the people that I thought of already are in law firms and they don’t want to leave them right now. I think it’d just have to be if I end up taking on any other contract attorney for that type of structure, where they’re taking the case fully and they’re actually working here, then I think it would really … It’s like a marriage. It really has to be someone I would really feel comfortable working with and having that relationship. I’m just taking my time with figuring that out.

Dave Aarons:  Absolutely. Like you said, it’s a challenge, also. We had Rhonda andJayshree out of Oklahoma City on the podcast. They said something about a Tulsa episode and so forth. Rhonda talked a lot about how challenging it was for her to let go of the reigns. She said she’s at the point now where she’s got clients coming in that she’s never met before. She’s had to adapt and shift. It’s a big jump, it really is a big jump. When she gets there, then, where her confidence lies in is the attorneys and the relationships that she’s forged with those attorneys. She has a great deal of confidence in her staff and the quality of the representation that those attorneys are providing, based on their experience with them. That’s the difference.

The other piece is, you usually have to have a consistent stream, enough business, because the way we’ve heard it structured in the past is they actually pay for the office. They’ve got the equipment and all that setup, and then the attorneys just come in and do the contract work, but they’re providing the initial space. It’s a big commitment, and there has to be enough volume to do it.

Maria Aguila: Exactly. I think you have to build enough to where it makes sense for the income stream to open there. For instance, I’m looking at the idea of Columbia County servicing the Baker County Union, Columbia, Stark area. That seems to be growing quite a bit for me. In fact, I’m in Baker County to meet with a client tomorrow. It’s a little too far for them to drive all the way here to Duval to meet with me. Sometimes I do and sometimes I just make it easy for them. It’s down the road, that’s something to consider where I would open a separate office, and have a contract attorney. I’m already thinking in that way. It’s a possibility, depending on how, really, things develop and go.

Dave Aarons: Maybe there’s around two down the line here. If you end up making that step, we can have you back on. You can share the trials, tribulations, and successes.

Maria Aguila: Right, exactly. I’d be more than happy to talk about that.

Dave Aarons: Great. Let’s shift gears a little bit. Maybe we can talk about, you’ve been practicing for many, many years. You’ve run a practice in the past, your own practice as well, and then day one, you’re jumping into fielding the leads from Unbundled Attorney. Can you talk a little about how the adaptation in the way in which you’ve been working with the clients from the standpoint of calling leads, the initial call, how that might be different from the way you’ve done things in the past? Also, how you’ve begun starting to adopt the ways in which you work with people financially to be able to fit this business model in this populous?

Maria Aguila: Right. What major difference, and what I’ve learned from what I did before and what I’m doing now, and especially with Unbundled, Unbundled gave you the training, the model of … The coaching Graham gave me about calling the client back right away and needing the help to do that. It’s true if you don’t do that, examples like … If I don’t call them back that very morning, and sometimes it’s hard when you’re busy, you can’t call them almost immediately. I at least try to send an email, some form of communication to let them know I got it and I will be contacting them. One time, you get a lead and then what I’m doing differently is you get back with them right away, get them to here. You get them to meet with you in some form or fashion. You talk about the alternative and what makes you so unique. That’s why the script is so great to the extent that it teaches you to explain to them why they should be considering the different services.

A lot of people come in, and a lot of them have done a lot of internet research, or they’ve talked to people. They’re already hesitant to talk to a lawyer, because they’re like, “I am not going to be able to afford this.” They think it’s just out of reach, or they feel like an attorney is going to not want to call them back, they’ve had bad experiences. It took a week before an attorney called them back the last two times. When they’re pleasantly surprised that they’re contacted almost immediately, that someone shows that they care, that the attorney cares, and tries to set up a meeting and talk to them or just talk to them on the phone right then and there at the consultation.

Find out what they need, what’s going on, do a general assessment of their needs and their services they’re looking for and what their budget is. Already, when they come in to meet with you, you already have an idea of how you’re going to approach it. They have already, maybe documents you need for the first consultation and then they become your client. You establish that rapport and that comfort. A lot of them may not feel as comfortable until they actually, physically meet in person. Some hire right then and there on the phone!. It’s like, “Where’s your Law Pay link?” That’s great, too. At some point I know, I’m going to see them, meet them. If they’re in another county, I will eventually get to see them, meet them, somehow. It’s always best.

What I’ve done a lot different is really, really building that relationship. Getting them to talk to you, get them comfortable with you. Tell them what you offer that’s so different from other attorneys and already, they’re halfway sold. They’re like, “Really?” A lot of them have commented, “You know, I really like that you offer this. I’ve never heard of attorneys doing this, this is the first. I’ve worked with three attorneys or I’ve talked to five or I’ve done a lot of research. You’re the only one that I’ve found that offers this, unbundled.” They’re really excited about it.

Dave Aarons: Can you talk a bit about how you convey or explain to them, the types of options that you offer and how it’s … What unbundled legal services is, and how you can suit those services to their budget and their needs?

Maria Aguila: I go and explain to them if they’ve already talked to an attorney or a lot of them … Some of them never have, and you’re the first attorney that they’ve ever talked to, you do gently tell them it’s not unusual that it runs in this ballpark, around this much for a divorce case with kids. You gently tell them, if they seem to like, “God, I can’t afford that,” or when they start getting upset, you say, “Look, look, there are alternatives. Don’t worry.” You put them at ease with the look, there are alternatives. It’s not the end of the world. You can get help. It’s not just going to come from some non-lawyer who’s just a form filler, and they can’t give you advice.

You coach them how it works in a legal system, and then you tell them the different options of how much it could cost, down to the preparation [inaudible 00:29:11] document review, however you structure it. I always explain that. That’s usually the first phone call. I always ask, “Do you think anyone of that would fit your budget and your needs?” Almost always, there’s something in that range that they can handle. If they can’t, they almost always come back later because they already know. They figure, “At least I’ll get some help. Here’s what I can afford.” Great, let’s set up the appointment. They’re excited.

Another tip I would say, never wait too long. I know a lot of attorneys, they say, “I can’t take another client for another month.” A lot of these clients don’t want to wait that long. Waiting just a few hours, I had a client I called this week. I couldn’t call her right away, that afternoon was after hours. I called her first thing … I called her in the morning and I meant to call her first thing in the morning, and I called her more like 10:30. She was like, “Oh, I already made an appointment with a lawyer this morning.”

She made an appointment with me anyway because I convinced her, and I told her about my alternative. She’s still meeting with that client, but that attorney isn’t likely going to offer those alternative unbundled, but I do. That’s where she was like, “I’m going to make an appointment with you then.” Sometimes they cancel. They say, “I’m canceling, when can I see you?” I’ll say, “Thursday,” or, “I book a week in advance, but I can squeeze you in. Here are my dates and times, what works for you?” They feel like, “Okay, I don’t have to wait forever to see a lawyer.”

Dave Aarons: Right. Also, it really is a big differentiator, because 19 out of 20, and I think that’s being generous of all the other lawyers out there, haven’t embraced these types of options. It is unusual for people to hear that attorneys are willing to work on this type of pay as you go or one task at a time type of manner. What would be helpful, I think, is would you be open to unpacking the different types of options you offer? I know every case is different, obviously you’re dealing with family law, you’re doing immigration. I don’t know if it would be easier maybe to break them apart and just say, “Hey, this is what I do for family law, this is what I do for immigration.” Whatever you think would be easiest. Maybe we could just unpack those different types of options that you may convey. Again, I know it varies, but roughly, what the price range is for each one depending on the case, and so forth.

Maria Aguila: I’ll give you an example for both family law and immigration law. For instance, for family law, someone comes in, “I need to divorce my spouse.” It’s maybe fairly uncomplicated. Maybe it’s not going to be contested if they have kids and they pretty much agree on the equitable distribution of their marital assets and debt. Let’s say, for example, that was the type of case. If that’s the case, it could start around 3,000. Prepared files go all the way through final hearing. $3,000, a flat fee, I take a nonrefundable advance fee of $500 and then a lot of them are on the payment plan, usually $500 a month, on the Law Pay. Some of them pay $1,000, $1,500 up front, and then pay the balance. It’s structured, depending on the client and what they choose.

The other second option for a family law case like that would be, let’s say that’s not in their budget. $1500, I prepare all of the petitions, and all of the required documents and that gets them two hours of coaching with me, to get them through the process. Either it gets in through the coaching for a final pairing, and walk them through. You’ve got to serve the individual, here’s the instruction. Those kinds of things. If it ends up being where they end up scheduled for mediation, let’s say if there are children involved, and they end up scheduled for mediation. If they don’t all agree on everything off the bat, at least that gets coaching through that, the $3,000 would pay through that mediation. The $1500 pays for just the document prep and the coaching, depending on the progress of the case.

The last option would be the $500, for two hours of my review. Including, they would draft everything. I would point them in th right direction, because they’re all available, free to the public, due to Florida supreme court has all the family law forms available to the public. They usually have to tell me exactly where they are in the packet or often, they’ve gone to the courthouse. They have the packet in front of them and freaked out because it was so much. I tell them, “Half of that is instructions. The rest of it is forms, some of them you don’t need. If you schedule a time with me for $500, for a document review, I’ll tell you everything you need to do.

When you have it all ready, come back, meet with me, and we’ll review it all and then you’re done. If you need another hour with me, you just pay another $250, is my hourly. You pay the total of $7.50. You’ve got an attorney, an experienced attorney in family law to help guide you through it. You have to remind them when you go to the courthouse or you go to a paralegal service, let’s say, they can’t give you legal advice. They’re not allowed to. It would be unlike this practice of law. With me, they get the attorney answering questions, reviewing that everything’s done correctly.

The immigration law, same thing. It could be an immigration case, a traditional representation at 3500. If they can’t afford that, then you’ve got that $1500 right there in that ballpark, depending on how many forms you have to do, can be anywhere from $1,000, $1,500, to do all the paperwork, the immigration forms. They file it themselves. Sometimes, I give them my checklist, what I normally would give my clients, and I tell them, “Here are all the tips on how you file your cases, how to track it. I teach them how to handle their case and track it with immigration. If they get overwhelmed, they can’t handle it, then they say: can I just pay you the rest, and you be a lead attorney and finish it?

The third option, again, is they do it all and they just want me to review it. Everything looks good, and they already know what I tell them where you need to file it, and how much is the filing fee, and those type of things. That’s how I structure it. They have options for either immigration or family law. I think a lot of the time, they end up either … It’s option one, traditional full rep or the second one is pretty popular. Once you’ve established that rapport with them, and you did the documents, they’re ready to file, usually, they call me and go, “I don’t want to. It’s too much. I just want you to do it. I’m doing it, I’m doing everything you tell me, but I don’t have the time. I’m too busy at work,” or, “I’ve come up with the funds.” Sometimes that happens.

Dave Aarons: We’ve heard that happens quite often, actually, where folks will start working initially. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it really just gives people an opportunity to start working with you and to get comfortable. It’s like you said early on, it’s just they’re getting comfortable. They come in the office, they’re getting more comfortable. They’ve had a lot of bad experiences with attorneys, they don’t get callbacks. These are all … The perception of a lawyer.

These are all things that have contributed, that if you can just get started working with people, just get them in the office. We start somewhere, start doing some work for them, and then we just get where we’re comfortable. Also, the reality, the complexities of the case start to come up, and then people can then transition. It makes it the decision and the ability for them to move forward and keep moving forward, so much easier because there aren’t those big financial hurdles that a traditional firm would be charging for them to just get started.

Maria Aguila: Exactly. You might do that work for them and it was maybe just a document review, and then lo and behold they come back and they have another issue. It’s a completely different issue or a different case. It could be an immigration case became a family case, or a family case became an immigration case. Who knows? They come back and maybe only page you for that service that now they’re like, “This is what I really need. This time, I really just want the full rep. I really don’t think I’m comfortable doing this by myself.” You let them know, I’m always here. They actually tell their friends and family, “Oh my God, she offered the service. We need to call her.” They teach their friends and family, there are options. They’re telling others.

Dave Aarons: Wow. It just really makes me smile, Maria, that they’re teaching others that hey, there are other options. Even if you’ve been quoted $5,000. This is the message that we’re trying to … We’re zoned out there on the front end, as far as teaching people that hey, even if you’ve been quoted $5,000, there may be other options and ways in which you can get the assistance you need, one step at a time or one task at a time, or work with attorneys that can offer a more realistic payment budget, payment plan. It’s really wonderful to hear that that’s also happening organically, with the clients you’re speaking to, as well.

Maria Aguila: What they’re doing is my clients are telling their co-workers and families. I got two or three clients from one client. They all went to Unbundled, contacted me. I have appointments with them, find out they all work in the same place. I just thought that was interesting. I didn’t outwardly ask, but they hinted, they’re like, “I found out from a coworker.” I’m like, “I can guess who it might be.” They just blatantly tell me, “I heard it from your client so and so, and so I went online and found you.” They’re sharing the word, it’s getting out.

Dave Aarons: When you’re doing good work and people are able to afford it, it makes that difference. They’re happy to share around with the things that are working well. One thing I wanted to just briefly ask is, on the middle option when you’re doing the $1500, do you typically take that out front or do you do it as a pay as you go, one step at a time? Do you require that? I’m just curious if you have a certain degree of flexibility if the person doesn’t have the full $1500 there.

Maria Aguila: I do payment plans for that. I typically like just to do a three-month payment plan of $500 a month, because the work is going to be done likely well before the payment plan ends. Of course, it would be nice if they can pay it all up front. Some do. Some do the payment plan, and that’s been fine, too. I offer that. For the document review, that’s usually paid all at once. I have split it up, though, depending on the client, I have split up $250, 250. Often, they say, “I’ll pay you $500.” They pay online, we schedule it, and that’s that. It’s pretty easy.

Dave Aarons: It’s really interesting and just seamless, or just beautiful in a way that each option starts with $500. At each phase, they all start with $500. If they can keep making payments, they can continue to get more and more service if they want, or they can stop the process. Obviously, your strategy and your approach is going to be a little different if they choose an option, obviously, so they still have to choose. Financially, they’re starting with 500 and if they’re doing it on their own, they’re going to have to do all the tasks themselves. If they want to, they can just go to the next step if they need to, and it sounds like a lot of people do make that transition once they realize what they’re in for.

Maria Aguila: Exactly. The only thing is I make sure to explain to them, if you choose the document preparation or document review, and then you decide to hire me for full representation and you have a hearing coming up or something and you want to call me the day before, you’ve got to give me some lead time. I have to prepare, and it’s based on my availability. They have to understand so they don’t get upset and go, “I need you, I need you.” If the hearing is tomorrow, I’m already scheduled to be in another courthouse. They’re aware. They’re trained, and they understand to give me some lead time. They build that trust and another thing, too, is when you think about immigration and family law, it’s expensive to file for a divorce. In Duval County, is $409.

It’s expensive for immigration. An average I485 adjustment fee is $1225. That goes to the US Department of Homeland Security. I don’t see a dime of that, that goes to the Homeland Security. That’s the filing fee. When you put them on a payment plan, the way I explain it to them is that it’s unique because it’s an interesting way of financing for your attorney fees, so you can afford your filing fee this month. You’re going to pay the filing fee is going to reach X dollars, and then you need to budget. All clients, and you have to think about what if you were in their shoes? Would you be able to write a check for five grand that day, for attorney fees and the filing fees? I don’t know of a lot of people who could. That’s kind of tough on a family or a single parent or an individual, or a newly married couple, let’s say. I explain to them that we do the payment plan so that you’re able to handle the filing fees and space out your payments.

If they’re late or something happens, you just work with them. It’s only happened a few times, it’s very seldom. Some major car repair came up or an emergency came up, someone died and they had funeral expenses. We work it out. They almost always pay. I think in life, it happens to you. Imagine if an attorney was willing to work with you instead of stopping, instead of closing or filing withdrawing and leaving you in a real bind and suing you for the cost, instead of maybe giving you another few weeks to pay off that amount.

Dave Aarons: You’re sharing something here that I think is really key and core, and that is just being willing … Open to having empathy for the situations that people are in and working around that and being understanding and putting yourself in their shoes and imagining what it would be like for you to deal with that. Everything, I think, from the unbundled options to the way in which you’re doing the calls, what would be the experience you would want? You’d want someone to call you back, you’d want them to listen and care. You want them to be able to get you in the office as quickly as possible, and then you’d want them to work with you financially. If you had challenges, they try to work around that. This is the experience any individual would want to have and just looking at it from that way, it seems like it just informs a lot of the way in which it is that you work with people.

Maria Aguila: Exactly. It’s something that I think I never really thought very hard about, because before I was very hard on fees. It’s X dollars up front or you don’t, the most payment plan I’ll do is two months. A lot of people couldn’t afford me so I lost a lot of business that way, years ago, when I could have been a little … Stretch out the payment plan a little bit. I took credit cards, not to the ease of Law Pay. That has been wonderful, how easy it is to use. Clients nowadays, they’re consumers online, too. Everyone clicks and buys, click and buy.

I think that mentality has morphed into the legal practice. I want to click and buy my legal service. I would feel the same way, if I were to hire a lawyer and have that convenience that I can pay my bill on my mobile phone, I’m going to do it. If I really liked the lawyer, it’s a great lawyer, and oh my gosh she has a link, I pay it right there when I’m in between my work schedule. I have a lot of clients, they travel a lot, they’re engineers or they’re teachers or they’re police officers or correction officers. All of them need the convenience, they’re busy people just like me.

Dave Aarons: Certainly the younger generation, as well, as they’re coming up, don’t necessarily … Aren’t very excited about the idea of having to print something out and then sign it and then scan it. A lot of these people, these younger generations, are going to have these tools. It’s just becoming obsolete to a certain degree, certainly, to the younger folks. The easier you can make it for people to buy your products is … Bob Parsons would say from Go Daddy, the more likely it is that you’re able to succeed with them. In fact what he says is if you make people work harder than you have to, to buy your products, you’re screwed. That’s his actual quote.

Can you talk just about when you think back to … You mentioned when you used to be a little bit more rigid with your fee structure. Can you think back to the way you were thinking about it back then, and maybe what some of the … The hesitations you may have had or was that just because that was the way you were trained to do it, and that was just the traditional way of working with an attorney and that’s how it always was? Were there some concerns or fears you had around being more flexible in that? What was it originally that prevented you from embracing this type of flexibility and this empathetic unbundled options and so forth? Maybe you didn’t know about the unbundled component, but maybe even just the flexibility of the retainer. What shifted, and what would it look like before?

Maria Aguila: When I had my practice and I was very rigid with the fees, I think I was afraid I’d end up not getting paid, and doing all this work and never getting paid for it. I realized, trust goes both ways. If the client is trusting me, I should trust the client to an extent that they’ll pay. Of course, you’re going to get the client here, and I haven’t had it quite yet, where you may get that client that signs the contract and then you may not get paid. I think that’s so few and far between so far in the past six months, in that I think what’s changed is to really put myself in their shoes and have the bills that they have, and the stress that they have, and know that for the most part … They’ll pay, they just need the opportunity and the chance to space it out.

Often, you end up … With that relationship with that client, and then what’s nice is, you didn’t have that steady income each month. You know when it’s coming to get paid, because it’s all scheduled. You can plan ahead. If you take all your fees up front and it’s like one month you could have a great month, and the next month could be crickets. That’s what was happening in my old practice. I would take big fees that one month, the next month, you may not be so lucky. You still got all or overhead, and you want to keep overhead low to an extent, but you’re going to have bills to pay, you’re going to have overhead. I think a great … I should have been more open to it, and I think that changed when I started to feel more empathetic and understand that the clients really were excited about it and needed it. It’s been building the business.

Dave Aarons: Exactly. We want to go from high here and just dispel this idea. I don’t want to do a lot of work and not get paid, and just … Help attorneys make this leap of faith and go, “You know what? If you trust them, they’ll trust you, and it will work. They’re going to pay. You can be flexible. You could work with those.” So many people are getting turned away from the legal system and the support they need because of these fears and also, the traditional training that you need to get these retainers up front, and this mentality that the bigger the retainer, the more successful you are. This whole dogma that a lot of attorneys have been influenced by. I appreciate you sharing that, the reality of that. The reality that actually, how it’s turned out financially and with the way you’ve overcome that for yourself.

Maria Aguila: I think the traditional model, sometimes, yes I get why they do it, the advance fee and you put that in trust and you build against it. I totally respect that, I get it. That cannot work for everybody. There’s a huge population that just … That’s just never going to be in the cards for them. If it is, they’ve been hesitant to fork over another five or 10 grand again, like that. Sometimes, you build that trust and you’re on the payment plan, and then all of a sudden you just get the full payment out of the blue. They’re like, “I paid it.” They maybe were burned before and they paid 10 grand to a lawyer who did nothing or did very little, or weren’t being satisfied. They never got to actually talk to that lawyer. With you, they’re like, “Wow. I get to talk to her. Let me just pay her.”

Dave Aarons: Nice, right.

Maria Aguila: It’s kind of sad to see, but then at least finally, they found an attorney who’s willing to talk to them. I get that question, “Am I going to talk an assistant, or do I talk to you? I want to talk to you.”

Dave Aarons: We’ve had similar is like they’ve said, again, on the phone with the attorney, they go, “I’d like to schedule to speak with Maria.” “No, no. This is Maria.” “Oh, you’re the lawyer. Okay.” It’s almost like a shock.

Maria Aguila: They are shocked when I’m on the phone, they ask me, “You’re the lawyer?” I’m like, “Yes. I’m not the assistant. You’re talking to the lawyer. The lawyer you’ll meet tomorrow.” They’re like, “Okay.” When I meet with them, they’re like, “Okay, if I hire you, is it this is the last time I’ll see you?” I’m like, “No. You’ll be hearing from me a lot because I’m going to have questions, I’m going to need stuff from you. My assistant may call you on occasion when we need something, but I deal with you directly.” That’s how I work, and I know that can be exhausting. I think the way I’ve set up my technology and how we communicate and I educate my clients early on, they know what to expect. I’m very clear with what my expectations are, and they’re clear with the expectations of me.

Dave Aarons: Right, exactly. I’m having trouble here because there’s so many different directions we could go, but I want to be respectful of your time here. I guess the one thing I’ll touch on is you’re in the unique position where you’re doing both family law and immigration, so maybe you could share anything about the differences and the types of clients that are dealing with immigration, if there’s any difference in the sales process of working with folks. Usually, family law tends to be a little more urgent. Sometimes you have time factors that are urgent in immigration, but also they may not have the necessity where they have to move forward. Obviously, Trump has been influencing people feeling like they need to do something now because they don’t know what things are going to look like in the future. Maybe that shifted to some degree. Is there a difference in the way which you … The process, the sales process, of calling family law leads versus the immigration?

Maria Aguila: I think definitely family law, because it’s court litigation, you may have deadlines. Sometimes time is of the essence, or a client is really anxious because there are problems with the time sharing, and they really want to go ahead and get their case filed, so they can get it heard. It can take months to get a hearing in court. We all know that could be a reality, especially in family law. A lot of courts are backlogged. There are so many family law cases. I try to balance that and calendar those cases, and give them a realistic deadline, and tell them how long it takes. In Westlaw ProDoc, I have samples I go by. I have a lot of … I already mentioned My Case, Law Pay, but I also use a Westlaw ProDoc form builder.

I also have my own samples of work that I’ve done in the past, that I use. I use, for immigration law … The immigration law, kind of similar with Trump, all the new policies and changes that can be daily, we have to really keep up with the changes and the update. I’m a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association that sends out those notices and helps with keeping up with all those updates. Clients, sometimes, in immigration, because they’re worried and concerned and want to file right away, we have to try to turn around get those filed as soon as we can, especially for some particular clients that we may be concerned we need to file for their release now before it becomes a real problem. You really have to use a case management software. I use my phone for all my dates and my tasks and my responsibilities so that I don’t … No case falls through the crack and I forget a deadline. It’s important to really keep on top of that-

Dave Aarons: Do you use a calendar, or what do you use to keep track of your dates and calendar stuff on your phone?

Maria Aguila:  What is it? It’s on my iPhone, and the regular Microsoft, but it’s synced to my … It just goes with me everywhere. I haven’t been using the calendar in My Case, I primarily use the calendar that’s on my iPhone that goes with me everywhere I go. I check it every day, every night, every morning. My appointments are in there, and the tasks through My Case, or I put that on my calendar every day, and I plan out my weeks and my months in advance, too. I’m used to doing that for years. It’s a habit for me, to keep up with that. I think it’s important where it’s … A lot of it’s automated and sends you reminders that would be easy to forget when you’re so busy.

Dave Aarons: Absolutely. The last thing I wanted to ask you, at least for today, at least until we do the round two when you’ve expanded to cover the entire state of Florida. You mentioned international adoptions. That’s not something we’ve talked about a lot on the podcast, yet. I would say there’s … A little bit less than the majority of attorneys do adoptions that are within or network doing family law. From what I’ve heard, these are good cases. It’s a specialty, to a certain degree. Can you talk about the adoption cases? We haven’t promoted that up until now, very much. It’s something that we could start promoting and maybe we’d have to do it region by region, perhaps, because some lawyers do it, some lawyers don’t. Could you talk about why you do adoptions, maybe the business side of it as well so that attorneys that haven’t been doing this, may want to consider doing this, this area of law in their own region, why is it you do that?

Maria Aguila: It started out because it’s immigration law, some client ended up adopting relatives or a particular child that typically, was a relative. The parent is deceased, or for whatever reason, they abandon the child. They happen to be born in another country and not born to US citizen parents, and then my client comes in, who lives here or in the state of Florida or somewhere, was needing to go the adoption route. It’s very complex, because you have to comply with the state law. You have to comply with the country law, the child’s country of birth or nationality. You have to comply with US federal laws, immigration laws. I got into it for my clients and I ended up … A very good friend of mine does adoption, readoption work, and adopted his own children from China.

We just started doing some of that work and getting very familiar with it. I haven’t been doing many of those. It’s very costly to adopt a child from overseas and because you typically have to hire an adoption attorney, and then the immigration attorney, and then you have to work with an adoption agency, sometimes. It depends in the country. There are a lot of different requirements, depending on a lot of factors and a lot of facts.

I got into it from friends and from clients and loved it. I had friends that adopted that are lawyers. The need was there. It’s not something that you often see, and there are certainly lawyers who do this a lot and work directly with adoption agencies. That’s another way of getting into that. It is very complicated and I had a very complicated one. I had to fight with immigration. They didn’t agree with our case and it was a real uphill battle. We thought of appealing it, but we decided to try a different route. It’s difficult when they come in, after trying to represent themselves, and then they come to you to fix it. Those are the hardest.

Dave Aarons: Right.

Maria Aguila: Got into it from just doing immigration and family law-

Dave Aarons:  Lost you again, there.

Maria Aguila: Sorry.

Dave Aarons: There we go. Go ahead.

Maria Aguila: I was just going to say, I used to write as a columnist in an Asian publication. That was a really … A question that I got quite a bit. How can I adopt so and so in the country of Philippines or Russia or China?

Dave Aarons: Do you do local adoptions, as well? If clients come in and say they want to adopt a child here in Florida, or in the Jacksonville area, is that something you do?

Maria Aguila: No. I haven’t, no I don’t. I don’t handle any really local, domestic adoptions. If I handle it, it’s more the international, more the immigration side of it.

Dave Aarons: Right, and that’s sourced from clients that are doing immigration and want to do that, involving multiple countries, that’s a specialty.

Maria Aguila: There’s a special training on that. I’ll be going to a Conference and there, the adoption expert’s doing their presentation in New Orleans as well as other immigration topics. There are a lot of related issues, family law and immigration law is unique because family law is a matter of state law, and immigration law involves federal. There are very few attorneys that handle both. There are some issues that pop up for those who are divorcing, and then they’ve got an immigration situation. I can handle both.

Dave Aarons: They’re very complimentary in that way. Maria, I really want to thank you again for taking the time to just unpack this story, this process, of growth and the ways in which you’ve been working with clients, and the last six months. I’m really certainly excited about the rest of the year and what’s to come. We certainly appreciate all the work you’re doing for these folks that otherwise, may not have been able to get it elsewhere. That’s what this is really all about, so I just thank you for what you’re doing.

Maria Aguila: I thank you guys for helping me with all this, and getting my eyes open to these possibilities. I think my business would not have been successful without you all, so thank you.

Dave Aarons: Absolutely. We’re happy to support you in any way we can, that’s what this is all about. I certainly appreciate you taking the time to share what’s been working well. With that, we will go ahead and wrap up this episode. For everyone out there who’s listening, we certainly appreciate so much your participation in the show, and for sharing it to those other attorneys that you know that may be able to benefit from learning about Unbundled services and payment plans and contract lawyers and technology. It’s certainly an evolving industry, it’s happening really fast. It’s important to be able to stay on the pulse of everything that’s going on. Thanks for sharing the show, and sharing with everyone else. We will certainly see you all in the next episode. Thanks so much.

What did you think of the interview? Do you have any questions or comments for Dave Aarons, or our guest Maria Aguila? 

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Episode 31: Starting a Brand New Law Firm After 18 Years of Practice: A Step-by-Step Blueprint for a Successful Launch and Expansion, Hiring Virtual Contract Lawyers, and Empathetic Pricing

After 18 years of practice, Maria Aguila decided to go back out on her own and start a new law firm. Today, Maria joins us on the show and walks us through the phases of growth and expansion she experienced during the successful launch of her new practice six months ago. She tells us why she hired a virtual assistant and virtual contract attorney to help build the new practice, and how she pays for their services. Maria also gives us a complete pricing breakdown and comparison between her full representation and Unbundled legal service options for immigration and family law. She explains the importance of cultivating empathy for the unique legal needs and special financial circumstances of your clients, and how that sensitivity will naturally give rise to implementation of flexible service options that meets clients’ needs affordably.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • The benefit of utilizing a co-working space to meet with clients during the early stages of your new practice
  • A step-by-step walkthrough of how she launched and then expanded her new law practice
  • How to hire a virtual contract lawyer to help with document drafting and other legal work
  • How Maria utilizes a virtual assistant in Singapore to help organize her work more efficiently
  • What Maria pays each of her contractors, and see a comparison of flat rate task work versus paying by the hour
  • Maria’s complete intake procedure, including how she enrolls clients and accepts payments online with a couple clicks
  • The importance of responding to new leads right away, and why this simple courtesy sets you apart from other law firms
  • The distinctions between Unbundled and full representation pricing options that she offers to both family law and immigration clients
  • Why enrolling clients initially with lower-priced options can lead to more repeat business and referrals
  • What international adoptions are all about, and why Maria handles these types of cases despite some occasionally complex issues
  • How cultivating trust and empathy with clients has allowed Maria to offer affordable payment plans without any serious concern about clients not paying
  • How document automation software enables you to prepare legal documents faster and more efficiently
  • And much more...

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